In October 1985, Liz and David Phillips opened the doors to the very first Steamer Trading on the historic High Street in Alfriston, Sussex. Nestled in the beautiful Cuckmere Valley and just a few miles inland from the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters, the Phillips’s had moved to the village some years previously to take on the running of the local Village Store. Following ten years of hard work painting, sawing and hammering – often late into the night – they’d recreated the fabulous local Victorian shop selling home-cooked hams, directly imported French cheeses and local English wines – all of which survives in the village to this day.
Alfriston High Street
Ready for their next – gentler, they thought – challenge, Liz and David tracked down the secretive owner of the empty row of cottages further along the High Street and eventually persuaded him to accept an offer. At that time converted to a single house, numbers 2-3 Steamer Cottages had first been built in 1400 as an open Wealden hall house. Changed around over the years the building, reputedly the oldest on Alfriston’s High Street, had been given a face lift by the Georgians, used as a pub by the Victorians (the Steamer Inn) and as a confectioners (G Bodle) during Edwardian times.
Ye Olde Steamer Inn
Faced with a beautiful building full of old beams (the Dragon Beam, which supported the building when it was originally a jettied construction, can still be seen inside) and fireplaces, the first decision for Liz and David was - what to sell? The name of the shop was easy – Steamer, after the Steamer Inn, and Trading, a reference to Alfriston’s less-than-illustrious history as a centre for commerce. In historic times, Alfriston’s position on the Cuckmere River made the village a central destination for smugglers, perhaps explaining how a village of only four hundred managed to support no fewer than 8 inns. Even the shop sign borrowed from history, evoking the style of the ‘G Bodles’ nameplate from 1921.
Eventually, the Phillips’s realised that they didn’t need to look any further than their own backgrounds and enthusiasm for a great idea for the empty building now with a hand-painted ‘Steamer Trading’ sign over its front door. David had begun his career in homewares and design in the 1950s with Finnish Designs, introducing the UK some of the earliest examples of the Nordic style which even today is probably the most important aesthetic in homewares design. He then joined the up-and-coming department store, Woollands of Knightsbridge. In the 1960s, Woollands was recognized as being at the forefront of selling kitchenware and had even recreated a Victorian grocery shop in their basement to display the highly-desirable French kitchenware that Elizabeth David, the cookery writer, was beginning to make ‘toute la rage’.
Sir Terence Conran and the Habitat connection
David’s reputation as the most innovative buyer of kitchenware during the 1960s soon bought him to the attention of a young designer who had recently opened a shop of his own – Terence Conran. Joining Habitat in (1966), David turned his design attentions to all areas of the kitchen and home – this was an age when kitchens started to become fashionable and the British were introduced, by Habitat, to woks, chicken bricks and French cast-iron pots. For the future of Steamer Trading, however, it was an even more important time.
Creating interest across Britain – even the Beatles came to Habitat to shop for their homes – what was going on in people’s kitchens also caught the attention of the press. Elizabeth Good, Home Editor of the Sunday Times, came to interview the new Habitat buyer that everyone was talking about... and married him a year later - Liz got more than just a good story. Although it may have been almost twenty years later that Liz and David opened Steamer Trading together, our story has its beginnings back on that day in 1966.
However, delve a little deeper into the history of shopkeeping in the Phillips family and a very different, darker story can be told…
The first Steamer Trading? H. Phillips & Sons, Housewares Emporium, c. 1870
In 1870, a young man called Henry Phillips (David’s great grandfather) proudly opened his furniture emporium in London’s East End. Business must have been good for Henry as he took on not one, but two adjoining buildings – renaming numbers 28-29 as no.28 Aldgate High Street. He was still there, 18 years later, when a lady by the name of Catherine Eddowes was arrested for drunkeness in the doorway of Henry Phillips’ shop – she’d apparently been impersonating a fire engine. Surrounded by an amused crowd, she finished her impromptu performance, gave a little bow and accompanied the police back to the cells to cool off. It was the last time Catherine was seen alive – by the next morning, she had become the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.
Back in the 1980s, when Steamer Trading began, specialist cookshops were few and far between. Most cookware still came from France, colour was restrained and every new kitchen tool drew gasps of amazement. Waiting lists appeared as Steamer Trading’s loyal customers vied to be the first on their road to show off their new apple corer and wedger or expanding fish slice. Many of the brands that we still stock today date from the time when Steamer Trading first opened – handmade cast iron from Le Creuset, traditional carbon-steel French Sabatier knives, Digoin stoneware pots and Polish glassware from LSA. We supported a lot of British brands from our early days, too – toasters from Dualit, still made today in Sussex, butchers aprons from Rushbrookes, bakeware from Birmingham – and we were one of the very first to stock Emma Bridgewater’s handmade pottery, also founded in 1985.
Before the days of ‘social media’, Steamer Trading’s reputation grew the old-fashioned way – good service, friendly advice and customer recommendation. The Ecole de Cuisine Francaise* opened in the beautiful surroundings of Litlington, our next door village, and Steamer Trading became the ‘go to’ place for all things kitchen related. Meeting the needs of both the budding Michelin-starred chefs alongside the many visitors to the village led to the development of a wonderfully eclectic mix of product – from a zabaglione pan to a duck press, a corkscrew to a wooden spoon. Often described as an Aladdin’s cave, we’ve always tried to find exactly what our customers are looking for – even if we have to scour the world to find it.
As interest grew in food and cooking, and chefs such as Delia, Nigella or Jamie were to be found in the dictionary under just their first name, so interest in cookware grew too. Steamer Trading was seen as a great source of knowledge for all matters kitchen. David could be found on BBC’s Bazaar, explaining which kitchen tools were ‘must-haves’ and which were to be consigned to the back of the cupboards – the ‘drawer backs’. The Good Food show bought a steel band to the village’s Market Square to test out the musical properties of Steamer Trading’s pick of the best pots and pans.
In 1997, faced with the need for ever-elastic walls to accommodate a growing range of cookware within the Alfriston shop, Liz and David took the decision to open a second shop in the county town of Lewes. Small but perfectly formed, our original shop beside the river (which was to claim the building as a temporary victim to the Lewes floods of 2000) was Steamer Trading’s first tentative step towards expansion. Soon, our first delivery van, an S-Cargo that we’d specially imported from Japan having spotted it at the Design Museum, was a regular sight running between Alfriston and Lewes, packed full of pots and pans.
As the reputation of our one-and-a-half shops grew within Sussex and beyond, we were being asked more and more often ‘why don’t you open a Steamer Trading in my town?’ Eventually, we couldn’t resist and buoyed by the success of winning the inaugural ‘Cookshop of the Year’ in 2000 we set off on our journey. Liz and David were joined by their son, Ben, who became Managing Director in 2001 to take Steamer Trading into its second generation as a family-owned company.
The first stage of Steamer Trading’s growth, whilst staying local to our Alfriston roots, was nothing if not ambitious. We teamed up with Terence Conran to design the stunning conversion of a former church hall in Brighton to offer three floors of the very best in kitchenware in the amount of space that we’d only been able to dream of back in our original shop. We also opened our beautiful shop in Eastbourne at the same time, having restored an original Victorian branch of Sainsbury’s back to its former glory.
With the success of these shops, we gradually moved outside Sussex, heading West, East and North, finding and restoring buildings and making them into wonderful cookshops. They’re all different shapes and sizes, so our ranges vary slightly in each one, but we think that makes them a bit more fun to explore. Visit our stores pages to learn a bit more about what makes each one special.